#63 Jewish New York – 19th Century Synagogues

#63 Jewish New York – Tenement and 19th Century Synagogues on the Lower East Side

A “tenement” is a word that describes a dwelling place in an urban environment (city) where many people live in close quarters, often in poor and sub-standard conditions. In the 19th century, the tenement was a common type of housing and building on the Lower East Side and many Jewish communities built synagogues and houses of worship in these types of narrow and tall buildings. In this lesson, you will learn about three important Tenement synagogues: The Eldridge Street Shul, The Stanton Street Synagogue, and the Meseritz Shul.



#1 WATCH: The Eldridge Street Shul

#2 STUDY: Eldridge Street Synagogue
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the first synagogues erected in the United States by Eastern European Jews.  It opened at 12 Eldridge Street in New York’s Lower East Side in 1887 serving Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun. The building was designed by the architects Peter and Francis William Herter. The brothers subsequently received many commissions in the Lower East Side and incorporated elements from the synagogue, such as the stars of David, in their buildings, mainly tenements.

Thousands participated in religious services in the building’s heyday, from its opening through the 1920s. On High Holidays, police were stationed in the street to control the crowds. Rabbis of the congregation included the famed Rabbi Abraham Aharon Yudelovich, author of many works of Torah scholarship. Throughout these decades the Synagogue functioned not only as a house of worship but as an agency for acculturation, a place to welcome new Americans. Before the settlement houses were established and long afterward, poor people could come to be fed, secure a loan, learn about job and housing opportunities, and make arrangements to care for the sick and the dying. The Synagogue was, in this sense, a mutual aid society.

For fifty years, the Eldridge Street Synagogue flourished. Then membership began to dwindle as members moved to other areas, immigration quotas limited the number of new arrivals, and the Great Depression affected the congregants’ fortunes. The exquisite main sanctuary was used less and less from the 1930s on. By the 1950s, with the rain leaking in and inner stairs unsound, the congregants cordoned off the sanctuary. It was restored in the past many decades and now serves as a museum and event center.

#3 STUDY: The Stanton Street Synagogue
Stanton Street Synagogue is one of the last surviving examples of tenement-style synagogue architecture on the Lower East Side. The three-story building, constructed of stone and brick, is situated on a standard 20 feet (6.1 m) by 100 feet (30 m) tenement lot.

Its neoclassical facade has a three part design with a central entrance. Four cast-stone pilasters, each two stories high, support an entablature and a pediment upon which the Yiddish name of the synagogue and its date of construction are engraved. The Star of David appears in four places: in an oculus over the main entrance; in a large, circular, stained-glass window over the pediment; engraved onto a stone tablet on the parapet; and atop the stylized wrought-iron gate in front of the building. While the original Star of David design is still visible in the circular windows, most of the original colored glass has broken or fallen out.

#4 WATCH: Tamid rescues the Meseritz Ark

Tamid: Mezertiz Ark from reelworks on Vimeo.

#5: In the News: “This Time, the Ark needed Saving” – Downtown Express

BY TEQUILA MINSKY  |  The Lower East Side was home to about a half-million Jewish immigrants a century ago. About 350 synagogues — congregations in 70 discrete prayer spaces — dotted the neighborhoods south of 14th St. Some of these spaces were called shtiebelekh or shtiebels, just one or two rooms set aside for prayers, others were grand buildings like Eldridge Street Synagogue.  In between were tenement shuls; synagogues built within the property line, often, the size of a row house/brownstone — narrow and long — sandwiched between other buildings. The last of these shuls above Houston St. closed in April, its space leased for luxury condo development. Its sacred, two-story ark, which housed the Torah, seemed destined for Demolition Depot.

But this historic religious relic, integral to the Orthodox synagogue’s building, was saved by Lower Manhattan’s newest Jewish congregation, Tamid, The Downtown Synagogue. Liberal and progressive, the congregation only conducts Friday night Sabbath services once a month at a church, St. Paul’s 9/11 Chapel.

Downtown Express photo by Tequila Minsky Tamid’s Rabbi Darren Levine and Sophie Stoch present the Torah recovered from the Mesertiz Shul at St. Paul’s Chapel.

Downtown Express photo by Tequila Minsky
Tamid’s Rabbi Darren Levine and Sophie Stoch present the Torah recovered from the Mesertiz Shul at St. Paul’s Chapel.

Architect Jason Friedman evaluated the 100-year-old, Mesertiz Shul at 415 E 6th St. for his firm, which is converting the interior space into condos. He saw the Torah cabinet built into an ornate oak wall carving of panels and other adornment. In an Ashkenazi style of the time, though made-in-America, it was inscribed with Hebrew and Yiddish words, a relic of the old world.

Friedman, a Financial District resident, had attended High Holiday services at Downtown Synagogue (distinct from a now-defunct, similarly-named synagogue). He called Rabbi Darren Levine, its founder, to see if a home for the ark could be found.

As it happens, Tamid was in the process of creating a new ark and called into service an expert from this small congregation, Salvo Stoch, who imports rare items from around the world. Stoch evaluated the ark and determined it could be safely extracted, stored properly, and retrofitted for Tamid’s ark.

The now closed Mesertiz Shul on E. 6th St., left. Hauling a piece of the ark, right. Photo courtesy of Tamid

The now closed Mesertiz Shul on E. 6th St., left. Hauling a piece of the ark, right. Photo courtesy of Tamid

Meseritz’s Rabbi Peseach Ackerman, who died Friday at 84, was relieved.  There would be a future for the ark with a new, growing Jewish congregation that needed it. For all, it seemed like b’shert, or destiny.

Climbing scaffolding in the dusty and paint-chip laden space, on Monday, April 28, Rabbi Levine and a small crew began the dismantling.

“It was put together with hammers and screws, said the rabbi, “and that’s what we used. Each of the right and left panels took an hour to remove.”

They used crowbars to pry the segments off the walls — 30 pieces, roughly 450 pounds of oak carvings, which had been glued on.

During their labors, Rabbi Levine reached into the cabinet of the ark and discovered, to his amazement, a Torah in the corner. The shul’s rabbi vaguely recalled this second Torah, tucked away with some smoke and water damage after a fire, some 40 years before.

The two-story ark before it was taken apart and moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, above. Downtown Express photos by Tequila Minsky

The two-story ark before it was taken apart and moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, above. Downtown Express photos by Tequila Minsky

It took two days of delicate work and a lot of sweat to complete the dismantling, the pieces carefully wrapped and taken to a storage facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Tamid hopes to someday restore the ark in a permanent synagogue Downtown.

Rabbi Levine presented the Torah, which he also hopes to restore, at his Shabbat service — held at St. Paul’s, that Friday night. Stoch’s daughter, Sophie, who celebrated her Bat Mitzvah last year, held the scroll for all to see.

With relatively few Jewish religious institutions in Lower Manhattan, Rabbi Levine felt the need for a spiritual home, a synagogue, and started Tamid, Downtown, with about 55 other families a year ago.

Levine had been at JCP (The Jewish Community Project), a Jewish school and center in Tribeca, for six years as its founding executive director, following a stint at 1,500-member Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side.

Rabbi Levine realized early on that Tamid needed a place to worship and thought of the light-infused St. Paul’s Chapel, across from the World Trade Center. Turns out that a fellow neighborhood basketball dad, who the rabbi knew on the courts for two years as Mark (but didn’t know his profession or title), was Reverend Mark Buzzuti-Jones, his contact at Trinity Church, which came to provide St. Paul’s Chapel to Tamid for worship, gratis.

The music component of services is led by renowned musician Basya Schechter, the front woman of the band Pharaoh’s Daughter and a Lower Manhattan resident.

During the May service in which the Torah was presented, Schecter’s blend of Hebrew and middle-eastern music, accompanied by guitar and percussion with Schecter singing and sometimes playing the oud, stirred the congregation. Inspiring music was just what the membership wanted.  Jamie Propp, a founding member of the congregation, nudged a friend during the service and whispered,  “It’s like going to a Friday concert.”

In the middle of the service, the worshipers got up, joined hands, and danced around the chapel for to celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath. “It ignites and unites the congregation as community,” Propp said.

“Tamid is in its infancy,” he added, explaining the once-a-month service. “You have to crawl before you walk.  A number of members aren’t used to going to services. There’s a lot to organize when you’re starting a new congregation.  And, it’s about building community.”

They also push the geographic boundaries of their neighborhood.

“We have bi-monthly book discussions at Pushcart Café on E. Broadway,” Rabbi Levine notes, pointing out, “Do you know there is no liberal presence in the (below Houston) Lower East Side? And, there are a lot of young families moving into the area.”

The word Tamid means eternal, taken from “ner tamid” — the eternal light that hangs above the ark in the synagogue. In a year, the congregation has nearly doubled to 100 families.

“We are an easy on-ramp to participate,” said Rabbi Levine. “We’ve taken a lot of risks and experimented with new and fresh ideas.”

Photo courtesy of Tamid

# 7 Review and Response

1. What is a tenement synagogue?
2. What are the names of two tenement museums in New York?
3. What is the connection that Tamid has to tenement synagogues in New York?

Need some help? We’re here for you. At any time, if you have any questions, please contact one of our teachers so we can help you. Also, at the end of the session, remember to review your responses in your Tamid Workbook so you can get credit for this lesson. Behatzlacha (Hebrew for good luck)! You can reach Sarah at (646)360-0689 or connect@tamidnyc.org